Tuesday, 12 November 2013

THE Bb TENOR KNEE PUMP with toe hold

THE Bb TENOR KNEE PUMP with toe hold


Since writing about a recentish encounter with a Bb Tenor Knee Pump, under ‘Mad Band Instruments’, I have done a bit of extensive research (clearly, an absolutely challenging iconic back story narrative impacting on the kangaroo in the room gaining traction before jumping through a robust window of opportunity at the end of the day going forward) which reveals the dynamic life and times of this most amazing instrument of instruments. . . . . .


The Bb Tenor Knee Pump is a rare and little known large instrument originally made by the nearly well known North West Norfolk Nossett Company in the late 1800s, and nowadays it can be very difficult to find on a Thursday. The most popular model amongst both collectors and musicians is the Mark 3 which has one toe hold, 36 valves giving 3 Octaves of 12 notes and a flange droppings filter bag which has to be emptied every few minutes.  However it’s still easier to play than the more modern Mellotron (of similar weight) which was designed to be played without a toe hold and with tape loops lasting only a few seconds.

            Although thousands of Mark 3 Bb models were made, there are hardly any left in circulation. This is due to the Ministry of Offence Requisitioning Officers (known as MOOROs) during World War II, forcing exhausted musicians in their pyjamas at 4am to hand over their knee pumps to make up for the shortage of heavy artillery and puncture proof bagpipes on the Western Front. The sound of massed bullet proof knee pumps played by young strong-kneed bomb deafened soldiers terrified Hitler’s troops and held back their advance until the Americans eventually arrived, slightly better equipped with heavy guns, hamburgers and big swing bands which could then easily finish off the fear-frozen Germans.   

Many cherished well oiled and polished knee pumps were also requisitioned and unceremoniously thrown into factory furnaces and melted down with rusty iron railings, old saucepans and horse mackerel to provide more metal and flux for the manufacture of much needed new tanks, guns, bullets and bombs.  But in his memoirs, Winston Churchill gives no credit to the Bb Tenor Knee Pump for the crucial part it played in winning the war, nor does he mention those brave musicians who sacrificed their knee pumps for King and Country. 

Some patriotic war veterans say “it’s worth remembering when the cuckoo crows louder than a klaxon horn after a late lunch on a rusty submarine stuck in the moon tide mud” that this dis-acknowledgement of knee pumps is a festering national disgrace – a pus-filled boil on the buttocks of British history.  Others say it’s a cast iron irony that the Germans and their Oompah orchestras retain great respect for the English knee pump, whereas the English don’t care two hoots.   

It is not so well known in certain circles that a musical museum in Minnesota now has the largest small collection of knee pumps in the world, after outbidding the King of Qatar’s sister and the Getty Foundation at a recent New York auction for one of perhaps only five surviving F# Baritone models ever made but hardly ever played. The mere sight of a formidable F# Baritone Knee Pump (with or without a fixed or fluid fly wheel) has made strong men cry and driven them to run up the north face of the Eiger without underpants, rather than rise to the challenge of conquering its 49 valves and double flange droppings filters.

Not to be outdone by the men, a few 20 stone strong women have stretched their legs and pushed hard on the instrument’s powerful piston and cylinder mechanism while fingering a few notes out of the massive melody pipe, but no-one with enough knee, thigh and buttock strength has yet come close to mastering its incredible seven Sevtave range.  With 7 notes per Sevtave (a total of 49 basic notes) a very strong dedicated musician could, with years of rigorous practice, sharpen or flatten a note with 3 degrees squeeze of the knees to make a possible 14 notes per Sevtave (98 notes).  But this advanced technique could ring consternational alarm bells and fear in the ears of other musicians in an orchestra who use the more mundane 12 notes per Octave in the winter months. 

So can the 7/14 note Sevtave be reconciled with the 8/12 note Octave? This question, leading to perhaps a series of questions, may have to be answered by today’s top young technicians at the cutting edge of modern technology, working in California and East Grinstead, who unsurprisingly have a somewhat covert romantic socially conditioned sentimental attraction to the good old days of great grandma’s belt-driven woolly knicker knitting machine.  They are also avidly interested in traditional acoustic man powered musical instruments, such as the Eb Foot Trumpet, the Piccolo Nose Piano and the C# Chinese Chin Saw.  With almost nepotistical knowledge of this available expertise and enthusiasm, if not with felicitous fecundity, the Royal Society for the Preservation of English Knee Pumps, RSPEKP – which by the way, is looking for two  highly intelligent young ladies with long strong legs to take up positions as personal assistants to the chairman and treasurer, in compliance with the new Women in the Workplace quota system – has  commissioned the young techno turks to simplicate and solutionise the aforementioned tuning scale problems surrounding the F# Baritone Knee Pump and orchestral instruments.  With the mentoring guidance of eminent Nobel Prize winning scientists and structural engineers, the results so far are as follows:

·     Change all the other instruments in the world to the F# Baritone’s 14 note scale (certain difficulties with the water-filled Ocarina here) or…

·     Fit two extra patina proof toe holds with re-surfaced escutcheon plates which could operate rubber flaps to allow 2 notes per Sevtave to escape – ♫ – thus leaving 12 notes almost in accordance with international standard tuning.  

The latter option appears to be the simplest solution but it would imperceptibly change the character and timbre of the sound and, in some distemperate coastal concert halls, make the instrument even more difficult to play – unless a first assistant agile apprentice player manipulates the 2 note escape flaps from behind and swiftly empties the double flange droppings filter bags without being seen. This would allow a virtuoso soloist or a seasoned section player more freedom in his knee straps, toe holds, neck harness and leg irons, enabling him (or her) to play full length symphonies with 80 piece orchestras in all nine corners of the world, weather permitting.

It’s well worth remembering that in 1912 when an intrepid team of engineers and musicians were testing an early F# prototype, it was discovered that the cold damp conditions at night alternating with high and dry daytime temperatures in the central Sahara desert caused perishing of the soft pink rubber flanges on valves 11 and 47, making them very sticky very quickly – hence the smell, especially around tea time. The test engineers were puzzled by this but soon found that frequent applications of high viscosity extra virgin goose grease would keep all the valves working well into the night.  Another problem occurred when the musicians’ heavily soiled reinforced surgical trusses shrank and split when washed and dried in the Sahara sun, so the instrument’s endurance could only be tested by giving each musician a 10 minute shift in order to avoid an outbreak of burst bladder and sporadic heart failure in the team.

After several more exhaustive trials but with no further funding from anxious venture capitalists in London, the Sahara test programme had to be abandoned.  The all-male team returned to England in 1913 only to receive scant yet scurrilous reportage in the lost columns of Womans World Monthly – written by a militant pseudonymical authorette who was getting fed up with her best suffragette friend throwing herself under the King’s horse every other weekend.  The article is a brief but significant example of the abuse, neglect and disrespect that both Bb Tenor and F# Baritone knee pumps have suffered since the Saxophone (a mere toy) became popular with weak-kneed jazz musicians in the 1920s.

Returning to 1912, Igor Stravinsky was so inspired when hearing a rough cylinder recording of the F# Baritone’s phenomenal capabilities that he composed a major work for it.  But when unable to find a soloist with enough knee, thigh and buttock muscles, he decided to score the composition for full orchestra.  We now know the work as “The Rite of Spring” – named after the musician’s rite of passage earned by years of strenuous daily practice and eventual partial mastery, and the instrument’s large side-mounted central cast iron coil spring. But in 1913, Diaghilev hijacked the composition for his Ballet Russes in Paris. Here again, the instrument gets no recognition for the crucial role it has played in 20th century music.

More recently – despite the nowadaysical demand for same-sex marriage between lapsed taxidermists wanting the life-style choice to protect their borrowed children from bastardisation and being kidnapped to replace dead dwarfs at multicultural dwarf tossing tournaments – the General Synod has voted for Bb Tenor Knee Pump ensembles to play in churches, chapels and cathedrals across the length and breadth of Great Britain and the Channel Islands.  The Synod’s motion was carried by a majority of just one uncatholic bishop who is suspected of having vested investments, beyond the vestry, in a Chinese iron ore company mining in Africa planning to produce tons of cheap Tenor Knee Pumps, T-shirts, key rings and fridge magnets (subsidised by the Chinese government) to dump on the world market.  Such ruthless commercial exploitation of a quietly iconic instrument will dissipate its classic significance in English cultural heritage.  Its identity would be destroyed in the desperate maelstromic drive for globalisation – unless British manufacturers produce genuine British knee pumps, if only to ensure that cheap Chinese copies never enter the hallowed vestries of old England.

However the same, similar and other vexations keep cropping up, even at Interfaith Dialogue Conferences often held in exclusive 6 star luxury hotels on the flood plains of Dubai where the world’s top men of faith, fuelled by rich gourmet meals and copious quantities of the finest ecclesiastical sherry, start fighting in their frocks about whether female archbishops should breast feed their babies on buses, and about whether female priests of all faiths should be given a god-given right to bring Bb Tenor Knee Pump bands into their churches, synagogues, temples and mosques.  After several days of righteous consumption and holy homo-erotic frilly fisty cuffs, they all agree to disagree and then steer their stomachs in a homeward direction back to their warm and comfortable safer seats of status, money and power. 

Musical instrument maintenance and acoustic engineering are known by more than some to be not included in the training of religious leaders, who can therefore be forgiven for being unable to address the two following questions.  “Is a big building built by humble craftsmen and steepled in ancient man-made superstitious religious myths and conditioning, the best place for equally humble yet strong irreligiously sweaty sminking and droking musicians and their cumbersome knee pumps which are so sensitive to cold, damp and draughty conditions?”  And, “will the 6 second sound reverberation decay time bouncing randomly off and around lofty hard stone walls, pillars and vaulted ceilings, cause unbearable harmonic chaos and ridiculous dissonance every time an ancient or modern hymnal chord changes hands and knees?”

With serene ecumenical ignorance of these essential questions, the Synod is still determined to follow through with its knee-jerk reaction to a situation brought about by hundreds of deranged power-crazed church organists (having pulled out all the stops) being torn from their organs by burly noise disposal operatives and taken away to safe and secure mental institutions.  Faced with such a shortage of organists, knee pump music is to be hastily brought into church services as a replacement for the wrathful, guilt-instilling, decibellion organ grinding used to terrify and subjugate the few faithful followers down on their knees in pews praying for peace twice on Sundays. 

Massed knee pumps were used, perhaps justifiably, to terrify German soldiers in a dark desperate time of war, but in the light of peace time English knee pumps must not be mis-appropriated as instruments of war to strike more fear and trepidation into the hearts and minds of the meek and mild already suffering from chronic Fear of God syndrome – known in polite philosophical societies as FOG.

But there is hope for the instrument yet. As we speak, ex-underwater aircraft engineers are hard at work developing contra Bass and Sopranino models (both with heavy duty neck harnesses made from the finest East African rhino skin) to satisfy the demand coming from overworked firemen and their wives wanting more exercise in the evenings.  This emerging revival of interest in knee pump music has stimulated the Department of Health to expand the recruitment and training programme for new knee pump players, by reducing the minimum weight limit of each player to18¾ stone.  So thousands of extra large unemployed people on welfare benefits will fare well by re-training, provided they can obtain an obesity certificate from a qualified doctor with well tuned weighing scales.

Furthermoreover, our present Prime Minister has persuaded the Chancellor of the Exchequer to allocate 50 Million Pounds of taxpayer’s money for the manufacture of replica knee pumps, with the proviso that they are made in abandoned British car factories. While this might keep some 8,000 workers struggling to pay for their foreign holidays, 2nd homes, conservatories, new kitchens and bathrooms, loft extensions, designer gardens, 4 x 4s and union subscriptions, there is still some doubt about their ability to reproduce an original instrument with such wide tolerances.  It’s just possible that the Prime Minister is only promoting knee pump playing in order to dumb down the political awareness of the Women’s Institute and Black Lesbian Feng Shui football hooligans, while at the same time playing up his virtuosity at playing down the inflation rate of bagpipe accents on English radio and television.  

Be that as it may, the long suffering innocent English Bb Tenor Knee Pump, after nearly 100 years of military, musical, religious, commercial and political abuse, is poised to take its rightful place in the orchestras of 21st century world music – to be heard above the rich harmony of the Arab sections, the smooth unison of the United Nations choir and infrequently augmented by the virtuoso voices of highly trained and well rehearsed Australian carpet fitters working near the North Pole at weekends.

No doubt in the fullness of time if not before infinity ends, other world events and the woman from the Post Office will further influence the ongoing saga of the Bb Tenor Knee Pump with toe hold.



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